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The Flow

Updated: Aug 15, 2022

“Go with the flow. The flow knows where to go.” -Proverb

Without fail my beginner students insist that improv is about going with the flow. Yes. Duh. But what does that mean? It’s a phrase so ingrained in our culture, so ubiquitous and widely used that it has lost its meaning. It’s become a strange mindless idiom. And for that reason alone it is worth pondering. After all, why not be considered and intentional with our words? Words are thoughts. Thoughts are things. They matter.

For me “the flow” conjures images of water, rivers, and streams. It veers my mind towards Eastern philosophy - Reiki, Tai Chi, The Tao. I think about the Jedi, Waterbending, and the space-time continuum. It reminds me of the “Flow State,” which is a popular theory in positive psychology, synonymous with “being in the zone.”

Going with the flow means taking the path of least resistance. It means directing the kayak downstream. It means working with powers that are beyond your control, rather than fighting God and gravity. It means that “what stands in the way becomes the way.” Surrender the outcome you first imagined and empower yourself to respond to what is happening here and now.

Anyone familiar with Alcoholics Anonymous has probably heard the Serenity Prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference. It embodies the spirit of “going with the flow.” Accepting the things you cannot change means deferring to the present moment, realizing your limitations, recognizing the flow. The courage to change what you are able is a proactive and empowered response to your situation. It is the go - the power that you have to affect the outcome. Then there’s that tricky final line - the wisdom to know the difference between what you can and what you cannot. To me this means that our power is contingent. Some days you might feel healthy, and have the time and energy to author your own story. The flow is calm. The river is quiet. You are strong. Other days you might feel sick, and have no free time, limited energy, to follow your bliss. The flow is chaotic. The river: full of rapids and rocks. You are simply along for the ride. Calm or chaotic, both situations are okay. No river is calm from the high mountain to the ocean below.

I’ve realized that most days we are neither empowered, nor powerless, but a bit of both. We might have one hour of freedom or five minutes. We might be free from sunup to sundown… and even then we got to shit, eat, and breathe. There are always things we can change and things we cannot. The difference between the two is dependent upon our perspective.

By the way, this isn't baseless and without empiricism. There's a science to this stuff! Remember the “Flow State" I mentioned earlier?

In positive psychology, a flow state, also known colloquially as being in the zone, is the mental state in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by the complete absorption in what one does, and a resulting transformation in one's sense of time. (Wikipedia)

The term “Flow State” was popularized by psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi in his 1990 book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. He describes Flow as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost” (Csíkszentmihályi).

Sounds a lot like improv. In fact, Csíkszentmihályi’s nod to jazz suggests he sees a connection too. Jazz is a genre famous for its improvisers: Miles Davis on the trumpet, Ornette Coleman on the sax, Ella Fitzgerald scatting on the mic… improv has shaped and defined jazz, and here is Csíkszentmihályi using jazz to define Flow States. According to him, a Flow State is accompanied by a range of experiences, including:

  1. The identification of challenging, clear, and attainable goals.

  2. Strong focus and concentration

  3. Intrinsic reward

  4. A letting go of self-consciousness

  5. The perception of timelessness

  6. Immediate self analysis and assessment

  7. A knowledge of that the challenge is worthy of your skill

  8. A sense of agency and control

  9. A forgetting of extraneous needs

  10. Total immersion in the activity itself

Chances are you’ve experienced this state of being in your life doing something you enjoy, perhaps while cooking or working out, driving or making love, walking the dog or simply reading. For a lot of us it’s easier to enter a Flow State in the world of the familiar and routine (i.e. lower-stress environments). Improvisers, however, must enter into the Flow in a world that is entirely undefined, in full view of an audience, armed only with creativity and collaboration. Sustaining a Flow State improvisationally is a herculean feat! In fact, I’m not sure I know a single improviser who can do it 100% of the time.

Even if you don’t read up Csíkszentmihályi, there are some great online resources to help you access the Flow in your own life. Any performer, any person, can immediately identify with this diagram featured in Medium, defining the flow as a challenge leveraged against your abilities:

All this is to say: yes, day-one student, in improv you “just go with the flow and get in the zone.” What we need to learn is how.

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